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John Cabrera

Grayshott, Surrey
United Kingdom

What is your nationality and where did you live as a child?

My nationality is British.  I was born in Westminster, London, which almost makes me a legitimate cockney, if the wind from Bow Bells is blowing in the right direction.  Until I was 8, I lived in Ealing, a West London borough.  My father's career in the film industry had become increasingly based in Spain and so we moved, in 1960, to Madrid where I remained until I was 18.

What were your favorite subjects when you were in elementary school?

As a child I liked science subjects.  I remember reading a lot of children's astronomy books.  This led me to irritating a teacher when I corrected her for telling a class that Mars had four moons.  I told her there were only two (Phobos and Deimos).  She was not amused.

However, what I liked most was acting.  I once played Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer but it was not my finest hour as my antlers (made from old coat hangers) fell off my head during the show and made an embarrassing clatter as they tumbled from the stage into the audience.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?

I had a lot of trouble with maths or, to be precise, with arithmetic.  I always found basic calculation a major challenge.  As a child, in England, I missed a lot of school through sickness or because my mother had taken me out of school to visit my father in Spain.  I missed crucial pieces of information.  With my own children, I have been strict about school attendance.  Both boys have missed few days through sickness and we have never taken them out of school to suit our vacation plans.

Handicraft was another subject I disliked.  I could not see the point of it.  On one report card, my teacher wrote, "John seems to have absolutely no interest in this subject at all".  She was right.

Then there was soccer.  This is a winter game in England.  It is almost always played in heavy rain on a muddy pitch.  Anyone playing ends up covered in mud from head to toe.  There were no showers at my first school in the UK.  I would arrive home after a game, cold, wet, muddy and a bit cheesed off.  Needless to say, I was not good at this game but, mercifully, I have never wanted to be good at it.

Oddly enough, I played soccer once more when I was 21 or 22 years old.  I was in a team that had agreed to play against some rather beefy lads from the Kingston upon Thames Water Company.  They had challenged us in the belief that we were a bunch of wet incompetents (true in my case).  Unbeknown to the water workers, we had, amongst our teammates, a brilliant semi-professional player.  We beat the water workers 11-2.  They were not amused.

What was high school like for you?

My first high school was the American School of Madrid (ASM).  High school was hard at first, but thanks to some gifted teachers, especially at ASM, it became an increasingly pleasant and rewarding experience.  I started at ASM when I was 10 and, at first, experienced what I would now consider to be culture shock.  American children were more mature than I was.  They had girlfriends and boyfriends (unheard of for English children of that age -- at least in 1962) and their way of speaking English differed more from mine than I had expected.  George Bernard Shaw is said to have claimed that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."  I don't think this is entirely fair, but it seemed true enough in my early ASM years.  I was not used to words like "cool" for "something you like a lot", or "fresh" meaning "cheeky" or "impertinent".  Words like "cool" have now been incorporated into British English but they were strange to me in the early 1960s.  Even today, whenever I visit the US, I realise that the language is highly adaptable.  It moves faster than British English -- American English "swings" a bit.  I am glad to say that this early perception dissipated over the five years I was at ASM.  Today, I treasure my American school memories.

Did you have any favorite teachers?

Two teachers stand out in my memory: Mrs. Charmian Mock and Mr. Robert Ianuzzelli.

Charmian had me reading far more than I had done before and persuaded me to take an interest in poetry.  She often read aloud to the class, or we would take roles.  I have vivid memories of "The Importance of Being Earnest", "Penrod Schofield", Dorothy Parker, William Cullen Bryant and so on.  Charmian was a special teacher for me because she combined a love of her subject with a kind of healthy scepticism.  She did not revere things unless reverence was palpably due.  Charmian also loved music and, together with Mrs. Frances Philbrook (of whom I was also fond), gave me a couple of chances to sing in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

Mr. Ianuzzelli, who was deputy headmaster for a year, first made me understand that conflict between countries is almost always rooted in economics.  His history analysis was, I now believe, quite left wing.  I have always wondered what happened to him.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

My happiest childhood memories are of the summers I spent with my grandparents at their home in Denia.  My family originated in this town.  It is located on that point (the Cabo de la Nao), roughly halfway down the Eastern coast of Spain (Costa Blanca).  If you could swim out from Denia slightly towards the North East, you would arrive at Ibiza.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, my great grandfather and his family emigrated from Denia to Liverpool, Northern England, where he established a fruit importing business.  My grandfather was, then, only one or two years old.  He was raised in England until he was old enough to return to Spain to take up military service.  My grandmother also came from Denia, where she spent her formative years.  My grandparents were married in Denia.

My brother, Edward, and I spent two or three entire summers with our grandparents in Denia.  My parents would remain in Madrid or spend the summer wherever my father was working on a film.

I was particularly close to my grandfather.  Every afternoon, while the rest of the family was having a siesta, my brother and I, and sometimes our cousins, who were all Spanish and lived nearby, would listen to an opera.  I know this sounds pretentious but I don't mean it to.  I really loved the music and I think I can still sing a lot of "Tosca", although the soprano lead is a bit challenging!

Why did you pursue a degree in psychology?  What did you hope to do with that degree?

I returned to the UK, from Spain, in 1970.  I started a couple of college courses in the years after that but gave them up.  Frankly, I was suffering from another kind of culture shock.  I had not lived in England for ten years and the country seemed alien to me.  Having abandoned two courses, I had to get a job and so, I joined Citibank.  But, throughout that time, I had a nagging feeling that I had failed to meet the challenge of further education.  I had also started reading psychology books and had developed an interest in the subject.  This, I should say, was a dispassionate interest.  I was not looking for some inner truth about others or myself.  I needed a challenge.  In England, university students study only one subject, sometimes with a subsidiary subject.  And so I started on a four-year evening-based (part-time) course in psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London.  I also did two years of subsidiary sociology.  This was not my favourite subject but it was easy to pass and a means to an end.  I got my honours degree in 1978.

How did you get into banking?  What type of banking do you do?

I got into banking in 1972 because I needed a job.  I had no particular ambition to go into that business.  However, I joined a highly supportive organisation -- Citibank.  As I mentioned above, I studied for my psychology degree on a part-time basis.  This was while I was working for Citibank.  After I was awarded my degree in 1978, Citibank invited me to join its graduate training scheme.  The training combined on the job development and intense courses in financial statement analysis (with a heavy dose of accounting), economics, marketing and even communication skills (writing and speaking).

The transition from clerical employee to management meant that I stopped doing work that was simply given to me and became responsible for generating business.  The kind of work I do can be generally described as international commercial banking.  I was given responsibility for relationships with some well-known companies including Johnson & Johnson, Wrigley's, McDonald's and Wendy's.

By 1982, I was feeling the need to expand my horizons.  I wanted an adventure, which is why I decided to take a job with Gulf International Bank in Bahrain.  I stayed in Bahrain for eight and a half years.

What type of math background do you need for a career in banking?

As I mentioned earlier, maths was never my strong point.  The weakness lies in my poor arithmetic.  Although I have not been assessed, I suspect I suffer from some form of dyslexia.  That said, I have worked hard to overcome any practical difficulties.  Computers and calculators help greatly.  It is possible to understand mathematical and business concepts while suffering from an arithmetical deficit.  It's a bit like being able to play the piano without being able to read music.  I have met people in banking whose ability to crunch numbers is even worse than mine.  So, my answer to your question is that one needs only a basic grounding in mathematics to be a banker.  However, just as one might write a better symphony if one could read music, it would be better, when considering a banking career to be more competent in maths than I.

How many languages do you speak?  Is a multi-lingual background useful in your work?

In addition to English, I speak fluent Spanish.  My French is surprisingly good though not fluent.  I can get by in Italian (a by-product of those afternoons in Denia with my grandfather and Puccini).  A multi-lingual and multi-cultural background has been useful in my work.  I feel comfortable in many types of society.

I used to kid myself that I could get by well enough in Portuguese.  On paper it is similar to Spanish but, when spoken, is (to me) quite incomprehensible.  I discovered this when I called on the Finance Director of Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses, the Portuguese state-owned railway company.  For some reason, he concluded I understood Portuguese perfectly and, for half an hour, spoke non-stop to me.  It might just as well have been Klingon as far as I was concerned.  It was all the more pathetic for my polite nods and pretended note writing.

How did you become interested in literature and the arts?  What types of books do you enjoy?

I enjoyed reading as a boy and that interest grew during my school years.  I have to admit that I probably did not always read great literature when I was younger.  A classmate of mine and I were great James Bond devotees.  I read every one of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and short stories.  I try to read more today than ever before.  This is because, like many others of my age, the more I know, the more I realise I don't know.

I like novels, history and books about politics in particular.  I also have a weakness for movie books and like to think I am pretty good at movie trivia quizzes.

My sons enjoy literature greatly and that has also spurred my interest.  A couple of years ago, my eldest son (Peter)'s teacher shamed me into admitting I had not read "The Catcher in the Rye".  I read it within a week and wondered how I could have missed it.  It is still a great book for teenagers.

How have you pursued your interest in the arts?

Over the years, I've done a fair amount of amateur drama.  In 1982, I moved to Bahrain where I discovered a thriving English language little theatre scene.  I joined several groups soon after arriving there.  We presented serious plays, comedies, even musicals.  Through the theatre groups, I made friends with some of the DJs and newsreaders at Radio Bahrain, an English language station.  In 1984, I started to present regular radio programmes over a period of six years and kept this going until the outset of the 1991 Gulf War.  My shows included interviews with visiting theatre and musical groups.  I presented the weekly chart show.  This means I am also pretty good at trivia quizzes on long forgotten eighties pop and rock music.  In the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War, during my final broadcast, I read out procedures, over the air, for taking shelter in the event of aerial attack.  It was a sad and chilling way to end my radio career.

I also provided voice-overs for many radio and television commercials.  Strangely enough, I appeared in one TV commercial but did not speak.  The commercial was for Lebanese chocolates and was shown all over the Middle East.  When I was last in Saudi Arabia (1996), I was often stopped in the street and asked if I was the Patchi Chocolates man.

Do you travel? Where have you lived or traveled to?

I travel a fair amount.  I sometimes think I am only really happy when I am somewhere else.  I have lived in Spain and have travelled fairly widely throughout that country.  The same applies to the UK -- I have visited much of England and spent time in Wales and Scotland.  I lived for eight and a half years in Bahrain, an island emirate (now a kingdom) in the Arabian Gulf.  I also lived for two years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  I travelled to a few places within that kingdom though I spent most of my time in Riyadh.

Through a combination of business trips and vacations, I have visited:

Country City or town
Australia Sydney
Belgium Brussels, Antwerp
Brazil Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo
Cyprus Larnaca
Czech Republic Prague
Ecuador Quito
France Paris, Calais, Boulogne, Belfort
Germany Hamburg, Hanover, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt, Kiel, Stuttgart, Munich
Greece Athens, Piraeus, Spetses
Italy Rome, Milan, Turin
Luxembourg Luxembourg
Mexico Mexico City
Oman Muscat, Muttrah
Portugal Lisbon
SAR China Hong Kong, Macao
Singapore Singapore
Switzerland Geneva
Thailand Bangkok, Phuket
The Netherlands Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht
Tunisia Port El Kantaoui
UAE Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah
USA New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Kennebunkport, Pottsville

I may have forgotten some!

What are some of the most interesting places you have lived in or visited and what did you like most about those places?

I have no hesitation in saying that I loved my time in the Middle East, especially Bahrain.  Bahrainis are courteous and hospitable people.

Bahrain is an advanced society but it retains some of the romance we associate with the Arab world.  It is a romance that is disappearing as the country modernises.  I remember visiting an old man who weaved stunning fabrics on a hand built loom that was anchored in the sand, beneath a Bedouin-style canopy.  He said he was the last of his kind.  His son was working for a bank and the old man doubted he would want to continue the family tradition.

Bahrainis share their good and bad times with you.  I felt privileged when I called on a friend of mine to pay my respects on the death of his grandfather.  I was the only westerner there, amongst august Bahrainis, but I was treated the same as the other mourners, all of whom made an effort to speak English with me and shared Arabic coffee and tea.

By the way, it is impolite verbally to decline coffee or tea in the Arabian Gulf.  I found this out on a visit to some officials of the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.  As is the custom, my hosts had a waiter bring me coffee and very sweet tea.  Unfortunately, I could not get the waiter to stop refilling my cup until, on the sixth round, he looked at me, laughed, and said, "Do you really want more tea?"  After an uncomfortable moment, my host rescued me.  He informed me that the way to decline tea is simply to shake or shake rotate the cup in my hand.

If you could turn back time, would you again choose banking as a career?

I have worked on a diverse number of banking deals.  They have been big and small.  Some have been dull and others have been stimulating.  Banking has given me the chance literally to see the world.  Would I do it again?  Well, I won't answer that question.  I can say that banking is no longer a stable career that will guarantee a lifetime of steady but uninspiring employment.  Like everything else, banking is a business that involves risk.  It should not be seen an easy option.

What did your father do in the film industry?

My father is now retired and enjoying a superior lifestyle with his second wife in Denia where he is an official "hijo de la ciudad" [son of the city].  He started in the British film industry as a clapper boy and moved on to becoming a Technicolor colour consultant, then a location manager, in Spain, for Samuel Bronston and, eventually a cinematographer/director of photography.  He worked on many major movies (and quite a few minor ones).  His work includes aerial photography on "Krakatoa, East of Java", also known as "Volcano".  One of my teachers had a speaking role in that movie!

My father played an important role in bringing Denia to global attention.  In 1958, he identified Denia as the ideal location to film "John Paul Jones", the story of a great American naval hero, starring Robert Stack.  Many films followed "John Paul Jones" to Denia, bringing rising prosperity to the town while helping the development of tourism.

Did you ever consider following in his footsteps?  Why or why not?

I did consider following in his footsteps.  To my regret, I did not.  I'll keep the details to myself.  My words of encouragement for students at the end of this piece reflect my experience over this issue.

It has been useful to have a Dad like mine; I have personally dedicated autographs on my wall from John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and others.  And, before my last trip to L.A., he gave me Kim Cattrall's home 'phone number...

How did you lose your hair and why is this different than normal balding?

I have a condition called alopecia.  I lost all of my hair -- from head to toe -- over a six-month period in 1980.  I had lost patches of hair (alopecia areata) from time to time as a child and in my early twenties.  I had become used to this.  The hair always grew back and the condition was not immediately noticeable.  One day, while shaving, I noticed a small hairless patch on my chin.  It did not concern me greatly.  But more patches appeared over the next few weeks and I started to feel bald areas of skin on my head.  I was still unconcerned at this stage but I decided to see a dermatologist in case there was anything more serious to worry about.  After several consultations, it became clear that my hair loss was accelerating and I was going to have to accept that all of it would go.  Alopecia is not painful and is a benign condition.  That is to say, there are no other symptoms and it is not life threatening.

[Read John's interview about alopecia to learn more about this condition.]

If you could have one wish for the children who are reading this interview, what would you wish for them?

I wish, for children reading this interview, what I wish for my own children.  I hope they will be free to choose the direction of their lives.  To do this they must take advantage of the opportunities they are offered.  From my British point of view, I can see there are inequalities in American society, just as there are in the UK.  But I genuinely see America as a free country where the poor can rise out of their place to achieve great things for themselves, their families, their peers and the greater community.  Rich or poor, people need courage, ambition and a bit of help.  I wish all children these things.

Do you have any words of encouragement for students, particularly those who might be interested in a career like yours?

If I can offer words of encouragement, they apply to any career or life choice.  That could mean banking or it could mean acting, plumbing, cleaning windows or something entirely vocational:

Listen to advice but decide for yourself if you want to take it.  Aim high.  Be willing to take risks, and don't accept negativism about your choices if you know in your heart what you want to do.  Above all, know and do what you want.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

"There is no more fatal blunder than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living."

~ Henry David Thoreau

A quote that comforts me from time to time is from "Othello":

"We cannot all be masters, nor all masters Cannot be truly follow'd."

It's a double negative, I know, but that's OK for Shakespeare.

Read more about alopecia in John's other interview

- 14 February 2003


Last Updated:
8 January 2015

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